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An Introduction to Solar Physics

Last week both Phillip and I spent a significant amount of time with children. I was leading the ‘bring your child to work day’ for my branch at the Naval Research Laboratory. And, Phillip spent the day as the Education and Public Outreach scientist at the first light press conference for his recently launched satellite, SDO, Solar Dynamics Observatory.

In honor of this experience, I wanted to take a few minutes to explain the basic what and why of Heliophysics. For reference, NASA’s Science Directorate has four sub-categories: the Earth, the Planets, Astrophysics and Heliophysics. So, to start, we know that Heliophysics is not the study of the Earth, the Planets or the Stars.

WHAT: NASA defines Heliophysics (a word which NASA scientists created) as the study of the Sun and its effect on the Earth and our Solar system. Let’s start with the Sun. Basically, you can think of the sun as a pot of boiling spaghetti. The burner is like the Sun’s core which generates its energy by nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium, the spaghetti represents the turbulent magnetic field of the sun, and the steam represents the solar wind that is ejected from the Sun’s outer layers and is composed of charged particles and plasma.

Solar Wind: Taken from SDO Imager

Next we have the Earth. During quiet times, our magnetosphere protects us from the solar wind. However, solar storms (often referred to as coronal mass eruptions) alter the makeup of solar wind. The more powerful storms are able to disturb our Earth’s magnetosphere and inject energetic particles into the lower levels of the Earth’s atmosphere.

WHY: NASA, as well as most of the Defense Agencies, are interested in Heliophysics and fund the continued research in this field. Most funding agencies look to scientists to establish a method to predict space weather. The solar wind carries a massive amount of energy as it travels through space. Space Weather (No, JP, I didn’t make this up!) defines the changes that the plasma and particles of the solar wind create in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The aurora are an example of a positive outcome of these storms. No doubt you have all seen a picture of an aurora in your lives, and few would refer to these events as less than spectacular to witness. However, many of the effects of solar storms are not so highly regarded. Many storms are so massive that they disturb our protective magnetosphere. Any disturbance of the magnetosphere could lead to highly energetic particles impairing satellites, impacting astronauts or causing power disturbances on the Earth’s surface.

I’m going to use Phillip’s PhD thesis as an example of what a heliophysics scientist may study. Phillip created an empirical model of the solar irradiance spectrum FISM His model uses the scarce, intermittent data available from satellites above the Earth’s atmosphere as an input and calculates a full, expanded spectrum of irradiance over all wavelengths. I know this may be a lot to understand – irradiance is still a hard concept for me and I’ve been studying the Sun for 5 years! For another way to understand this problem, imagine you create a focus group to find out the percentage of people who like the color red and you divide your participants by age. But, no one in your group is of the ages 5, 10 or 15. When you plot the results, you will have data gaps in your plot. Phillip’s model works with irradiance data that isn’t complete, just like your focus group was incomplete. He uses his knowledge of physics and his experience working with other solar data sets to calculate the missing pieces of data. Why is it so important that we have a complete plot? The irradiance spectrum allows scientists to track the changes in the Sun’s energy output. Changes in the Sun’s energy output effect the Earth’s atmosphere. His model focuses on tracking changes that occur during storms, as these events are most likely to cause an impact at Earth.

FISM Example

For my current project at work, I investigate the changes of the magnetic field (the boiling spaghetti). Specifically, I am looking at the magnetic field configuration and dynamics after solar coronal mass ejections occur. I’ll be sure to include another post when I have more results!

Again, the long term goal, for both of our projects, focus on predictive capabilities. The million dollar question for a Heliophysics scientist asks “when will each storm hit the Earth and how much energy will it carry with it?” To answer this question, we need to understand why and under what conditions each storm develops.

PS. I won’t have time to post next week. My finals are on Monday, May 10th. Wish me luck!


a new wedding experience

This past Saturday Phillip and I attended the wedding of my coworker, Robin, and her fiance (now husband!)  Many of you have heard me talk about Robin from time to time.  To put it simply, she is glue that holds me together and keeps me sane at work.  When I have a problem, Robin has a solution.  When I’m feeling particularly unmotivated, Robin is there to entertain me.

Robin Colannino Wedding

Robin’s wedding was an experience for me, as well as a few other guests.  The ceremony was Quaker, as her now husband’s family has observed the religion for many generations.   It will be difficult to describe the experience, as it was so different from what I was expecting, but I will do my best.

I’ll start from the beginning.  Phillip and I are seated  in the meeting-house 15 minutes before the ceremony is set to start.  For all of you who have not been in a meeting-house, the seats are arranged in a circle.  Deciding where to sit was a bit of an ordeal as every seat affords a completely different view of the center of the room.  (Turns out we picked the worst seat because throughout the vows all I could see were the back of  Chris’ shoulders and none of Robin!)  Once seated we begin to whisper back and forth about all that we are expecting to happen in the ceremony.  About 5 minutes into the whispering Phillip informs me, politely, that we are supposed to be silent.  When I look up and take the time to see the other guests, it is obvious that they are all in silence.  Serious embarrassment but it could have been much worse if we would have still been whispering away when Robin & Chris entered!

All is silent  in the room when Robin & Chris enter.  They seat themselves and a man, who is leading the ceremony, explains to the non-Quaker attendees how the meeting is set to work.  We are to sit in reflective silence and if we are so moved we are able to stand and voice a thought for the couple.

Throughout the entire 1.5 hours about 15 people stood to speak – Phillip can call me out if he thinks this is an exaggeration as I’ve been known to exaggerate a bit.  At one point, Robin & Chris stand to recite their vows then quietly return to their seats.  A marriage certificate, to be signed by all attendees, is read aloud.  Other than these times, all was silent.

The thoughts, offered by the people who stood to speak, were heartfelt.  (Robin’s mother made me cry within 15 seconds of standing up to speak.)  And the sense of community, which is a pillar of the Quaker religion, was evident.  But, several times throughout the meeting, I wanted to stand up and clap and shout.  The hardest moment of restraint for me came after the vows when the couple was re-seated and endured another hour of silence while the ceremony continued before they could express their joy!  The entire experience reconfirmed that my patience could still use some improvement.  Especially considering my urge for sudden outburst and the fact that the 6-year-old on the opposite side of the circle was able to sit more still than I was able.

Robin Colaninno Wedding

We ended the night with a wonderful reception.  The evening was filled with delicious food, lots of booze, great conversations with interesting people, birthday singing to the Mother of the Groom, and a cupcake in Robin’s face 🙂  Great party, Robin.  Thanks for having us – and we hope you are enjoying the Keys!

PS.  Phillip didn’t take a serious picture the ENTIRE evening.  The picture above is the best I could find.


An Ode to Jeffery Tyner

The following are a few pictures that Phillip managed to take of the National Mall on Saturday night.  To no one’s surprise, he couldn’t force himself to show you any pictures that didn’t include Jeffery, his best buddy, who came to visit this week.

WWII Memorial Text

WWII Memorial Text

The WWII Memorial has always been a favorite of mine. There is a something for everyone at the Memorial – fountains, pools, shadow lighting, underwater lightening, sculptures, stone, iron. Plus its fun to find and stake a claim to ‘your’ state!

WWII Memorial with Lincoln Memorial in Background

Washington, DC


A Once in a Lifetime Experience

I’m going to start with something that happened several months ago but will stick with me for a lifetime. The shuttle Endeavour launch was one of the most amazing experiences of my life!

Hannah and I drove down to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida from DC. (Well, to be truthful, Hannah drove the entire way. Thanks, Hannah!) We left at 8pm on a Friday to avoid the pending snow storm that ruined DC for an entire week. The first storm. Fourteen hours later including a long detour to enjoy a few Panera bagels, we made it to Cocoa Beach.

Going on very little sleep and a lot of caffeine – which is very rare for Hannah – we prepared for the first launch window. It was a night launch, so we left the house at 1am – Phillip’s parents were nice enough to let us stay with them in a beach house they had rented for the week – in order to make it to KSC with enough time to get settled for the 4am launch window. The countdown began, then it held, then it resumed, then it held. Three hours later and after much exhausted anticipation, the countdown resumed at 4 minutes. Only to be scrubbed two seconds later!

For all of you who don’t know what it means to scrub a launch, join the club. I watched, in confusion, as people raced to their cars with lawn chairs, blankets, coolers and binoculars in tow. A few minutes later we learned, via the loud speakers, that clouds had formed over the launch site and the launch was canceled – set to be retried the following night – to protect the astronauts’ safety. With clouds covering the launch pad, engineering could not guarantee a safe landing in the event that the shuttle would need to make an emergency grounding in the first few minutes after launch. After a few hours in the car, we learned why everyone had raced back to their vehicles – to make it to the exit quickly. It took us something like 5 hours to get back to the hotel!

The second day in Florida was almost torture. We hadn’t had much sleep in two days but we were determined to head back to the launch site for the second attempt so we all had to stay awake. Phillip’s parents took us mini golfing to keep us moving. Thanks, Tom and Susan! And we spent the other half of the evening watching the super bowl – poor Colts! (By the way, did you all see this super bowl commercial? Bud Light Super Bowl Commercial Phillip and I both got several text messages after it aired. Everyone seemed to want to believe that it was a glimpse into our daily lives. Sadly, No!)

At 1am the next morning we headed back out. Hannah and I discussed several times how we may break down into tears – mostly from pure exhaustion – if the launch was scrubbed a second time. As the countdown drew to a close, the excitement in the viewing area was unreal. Turns out it was well worth the exhaustion, patience and travel…

Needless to say, on February 8th, 2010 we saw Endeavour, the 32nd shuttle to the ISS, launch into the VERY clear sky.

Happiness to last a lifetime!

Want to check out what the Endeavour went to the ISS to do? Shuttle Mission STS130 Endeavour delivered a third connecting module – the Tranquility node – to the station and a seven-windowed cupola to be used as a control room for robotics. The mission featured three spacewalks.


I’m really going to do it this time…

I started this page several months ago but have yet to make it public. This is our official debut!

I had planned to use the blog to showcase Phillip’s photographs but his new position at Goddard has taken up more of his free time than we had originally predicted. Instead, the site will tell you a bit about our lives with intermittent photograph features.

I hope you enjoy! I’ll try to post every Sunday night so you can all have an excuse to procrastinate on Monday mornings 🙂

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